Working with artisans is no simple task. It comes with unique challenges and frustrations. But artisan partnership also brings opportunity on multiple levels: the opportunity to bring employment to women in rural communities who are experiencing high levels of poverty, illness, and social unrest; the opportunity to integrate rare craft techniques into your collections; and the opportunity to connect your consumers more deeply with the people and processes behind your collection. These are only a few of the reasons that the struggle is well worthwhile.
In the 10 years since I founded the organization, Nest has seen that short-term investments in training and infrastructure for artisan groups yields high return on investment. This is good news for brands and designers, because it means that if you help give your artisan suppliers a little boost, the rewards will be many and the growth curve for an improved, high-functioning sourcing relationship will be strong. The following are some suggestions for how to work most effectively with artisans.
Get to Know Artisans and Their Crafts
Visit your artisan suppliers and/or dedicate time to understanding their craft techniques. One of the biggest issues that brands and artisans encounter when navigating new sourcing relationships is the lack of understanding around the confines and unique stipulations involving a given craft technique.
For example, the batik textile dyeing process requires a nuanced application of dye colors and certain colors cannot appear next to others in a given motif. If your design team takes the time to visit your artisan suppliers and understand the technique, the better equipped you will be to successfully design into the technique, rather than to work against it.
Set Communications Expectations
Communications with artisan partners can be difficult. Your suppliers may have a very limited command of English and cultural differences could result in spotty email communication. Set expectations with your partners upfront about which communications channels you plan to use and how accessible you need them to be.
Many artisans come from “yes” cultures and your partners may want to tell you that everything is going smoothly when it’s not. Let your suppliers know that proactive updates are appreciated, even when the news is bad. Let them know that you will work together to troubleshoot the issues.
Artisan suppliers are often very geographically isolated, working out of their homes in rural areas. Shipping and logistics can be a big problem. On top of this, the work is entirely handmade, which means that it requires time to be produced.
Artisans may be dealing with health issues and other social stressors that impact their ability to show up for work, meaning that the size of your workforce may be variable from day to day. For all these reasons, it is not uncommon for artisan orders to take longer than expected.